The best crime fiction of 2019

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - DE­CLAN BURKE DE­CLAN HUGHES

Crime Fiction

The year got off to an ex­cel­lent start with the 22nd Dave Ro­bicheaux novel, The New Ibe­ria Blues (Orion) – only the in­com­pa­ra­ble James Lee Burke could get away with a de­tec­tive in­ves­ti­gat­ing “a mis­an­thrope with the vi­sion of Cap­tain Ahab in his pur­suit of the white whale”.

Hanna Jame­son’s The Last (Pen­guin) is a dystopian Agatha Christie mur­der mys­tery set in the Alps in the wake of a nu­clear holo­caust, when – un­sur­pris­ingly – moral­ity is nowhere as im­por­tant as it used to be.

Set along the Scot­tish bor­ders, An­thony J Quinn’s The Lis­ten­ers (Head of Zeus) is a fas­ci­nat­ing med­i­ta­tion on the na­ture of truth and a mind-bend­ing vari­a­tion on the locked-room mys­tery, in which the inmate of a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal con­fesses to a mur­der de­spite the im­pos­si­bil­ity of his be­ing guilty.

Dervla McTier­nan’s The Scholar (Sphere) in­vokes Ross Macdonald as Gal­way-based Garda de­tec­tive Cor­mac Reilly dis­cov­ers a whole fam­ily of skele­tons in the closet while in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mur­der of a bril­liant young phar­ma­cist. (“There was al­ways some­thing mor­bidly fas­ci­nat­ing about the su­per-rich. It was like sniff­ing at a piece of meat that had been hung a bit too long, that had a taint of rot about it.”).

Set in Derry, Dave Dug­gan’s crime fiction de­but, Oak and Stone (Mer­dog), be­gins as a con­ven­tional mur­der mys­tery and evolves, via much Chan­dleresque wise-crack­ing, into an ex­is­ten­tial ex­plo­ration of North­ern Ire­land’s polic­ing.

Fans of his­tor­i­cal crime fiction might want to search out JM Alvey’s Shadow of Athens (Orion), set in Per­i­cles’ Athens, in which drama­tist and am­a­teur sleuth Philo­cles in­ves­ti­gates why a corpse was dumped out­side his door.

Set in the 1960s, Laura Lipp­man’s The Lady in the Lake (Faber & Faber ) func­tions equally well as a su­perb mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion and a love let­ter to Baltimore.

The best pri­vate-eye novel of the year is Kate Atkin­son’s Big Sky (Dou­ble­day), fea­tur­ing the re­luc­tant knight er­rant Jack­son Brodie, in which Brodie lends the lie to his own as­ser­tion that “there was no mean­ing to any­thing. No moral­ity. No truth.”

By some dis­tance the best high-con­cept thriller of the year, Adrian McKinty’s The Chain (Orion) is a kid­nap-gone-wrong yarn with a hell of a twist. Mean­while, Claire McGowan’s What You Did (Thomas & Mercer) is steeped in #Me­Too and #TimesUp as McGowan de­liv­ers one of the finest do­mes­tic noirs to date.

Ev­ery bit as po­lit­i­cal is At­tica Locke’s Heaven, My Home (Ser­pent’s Tail), in which black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews in­ves­ti­gates the Aryan Broth­er­hood against a back­drop of Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion.

Fi­nally, Jess Kidd’s quirk­ily gothic his­tor­i­cal mys­tery Things in Jars (Canon­gate) is a sump­tu­ously read­able de­light from start to fin­ish.

Metic­u­lously imag­ined world

Jane Harper’s won­der­fully at­mo­spheric The Lost Man (Lit­tle Brown) slowly and care­fully draws the reader into a com­pletely be­liev­able, metic­u­lously imag­ined world, and the thrills it de­liv­ers are heart­felt and hu­man, and all the more pow­er­ful for that.

Blood Orange (Wild­fire), the first novel by for­mer bar­ris­ter Har­riet Tyce, cap­tures well the ro­mance and rest­less squalor of hard-drink­ing Lon­don lawyers: glit­ter­ing and fierce and res­o­lutely un­sen­ti­men­tal, a glo­ri­ous bon­fire of a mar­riage thriller.

Lisa Lutz’s de­li­cious The Swal­lows (Ti­tan Books) works su­perbly as a #Me­Too con­gru­ent fa­ble about sex­ual in­tim­i­da­tion, re­venge porn, in­ter­nalised misog­yny and the need for vi­o­lent fe­male re­sis­tance: a must-read for teenage girls of all ages – and their broth­ers.

AS Hatch’s de­but This Lit­tle Dark Place (Ser­pent’s Tail) is a spare, el­e­gantly writ­ten chiller in the true High­smithian reg­is­ter, with an in­spired use of Brexit, first as an un­earthly chill across the land and then as a fren­zied, Brueghe­lian street party in a sea­side town.

Jane Casey’s award win­ning Cruel Acts (Harper Collins) is psy­cho­log­i­cally acute, in­ci­sively de­tailed and re­lent­lessly paced with a heart-stop­ping rooftop cli­max; the Maeve Ker­ri­gan se­ries just gets bet­ter and bet­ter.

John Con­nolly’s potent, tur­bu­lent blend of crime and su­per­nat­u­ral fiction is on full dis­play in A Book of Bones (Si­mon & Schus­ter), a Vic­to­rian-scale nar­ra­tive in­fused with English folk mythol­ogy and an ex­cep­tional feel for land­scape and set­ting.

An­drew Martin’s stylish, witty The Winker (Cor­sair) show­cases the seed­i­ness and shabby el­e­gance of 1970s Lon­don; it reads like a nasty, ec­cen­tric film star­ring David Hem­mings and Charles Gray.

All of Mick Her­ron’s strengths are on dis­play in Joe Coun­try (John Mur­ray), the lat­est Jack­son Lamb thriller: scabrous comic di­a­logue, bravura ac­tion se­quences and a quick­sil­ver abil­ity to shift through the gears from tragedy to farce.

Scrub­lands (Wild­fire), Chris Ham­mer’s in­cen­di­ary Out­back-set de­but, shares el­e­ments of the work of Jane Harper and Peter Tem­ple; worth read­ing for the bush­fire set­piece alone, it is am­bi­tious in scale and scope, de­liv­er­ing right up to the last, pow­er­fully mov­ing, page.

Epic in con­cep­tion and metic­u­lously plot­ted, Alex Mar­wood’s The Poi­son Gar­den (Sphere) is a dystopian eco-thriller that speaks very much to the present mo­ment; a dis­tinc­tive, bril­liantly imag­ined piece of work with a ruth­less, re­source­ful hero­ine and an un­ex­pect­edly op­ti­mistic end­ing.

Louise Can­dlish’s trou­ble in sub­ur­ban par­adise tale Those Peo­ple (Si­mon & Schus­ter) dis­plays her keen, satir­i­cal eye for so­cial hypocrisy as she ar­raigns her en­ti­tled, priv­i­leged char­ac­ters with nu­ance and com­pas­sion.

The Sleep­walker (Dou­ble­day), Joseph Knox’s bril­liant third novel, dis­plays all the virtues of a high-en­ergy po­lice pro­ce­dural while be­ing spir­i­tu­ally and tonally in thrall to clas­sic PI fiction, with a cu­mu­la­tive hal­lu­ci­na­tory power that bor­ders on the un­canny.

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